Friday, September 28, 2007

Metta -- Practicing a Lovingkindness Meditation

For PGK, should she stop by.

I like to live intuitively. I like to believe that as I hike up a dry canyon, I'll find a spring of fresh water before I dehydrate too badly; that beauty is spontaneous; that solutions will spring Athena-like fully grown from my mind; that understanding will be revealed like a curtain swept away from a window.

Often enough, that is exactly what happens.

So I was pretty delighted when I heard about the notion of a Buddhist meditation practice, metta, that engendered lovingkindness.

And I was equally dismayed when I learned the mechanics of the practice. (A basic set of instructions can be found here.)

What? I'm supposed to practice by repeating this blather to myself about "May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be whatever"? How can that help anything? This is just one of those self-delusional New Age indulgences. I don't want contrivance. I want to be filled with divine love.

And so I set metta practice aside for several years, focusing myself on more "important" stuff.

Then, more recently, I ran across Sharon Salzberg's book, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1995. Reading it, she provided more context for practicing a lovingkindness meditation, and I was probably more ready for the instruction at that point. As I recall her instruction, she recommended starting the practice by reference to oneself, and sustaining the practice not just for a five minute session, but for a week or a month of daily sessions, before even venturing beyond oneself and applying it to others.

Compromiser that I am, I figured that I spend 20-30 minutes each morning on an elliptical trainer, usually reading something. I could do a week's worth of elliptical trainer time practicing the metta meditation, rather than reading. (Yes, I know. Elegant image. Now lay it aside. ;-)) The first day, the practice felt pointless. The second through fourth days, I started to become aware of the ways that I resisted really allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, even at the basic level of the meditation. By the end of the week, something inside me had relaxed enough to settle into the practice.

So the next week, I started with myself, then shifted the meditation practice to someone I loved. The instruction I had told me that it was best to choose someone to whom I was not sexually attracted, to avoid confusing the experience with the attachment that can easily arise to supplant lovingkindness. With such an instruction, I knew exactly whom to use: the 18-month-old daughter of a family in my ward. She had a penchant for wandering down the aisles of the chapel during sacrament meeting, finding me, and plopping herself down, either on my lap for a nap, or on the pew beside me for a more elaborate game of giving and taking, usually involving the sketch pencil and kneadable eraser I usually bring to Church for sketching during sermons. It was easy to desire her health, happiness, peace, and clarity. So the second week, I enjoyed the practice of desiring the best for her.

The third week, I was supposed to start with myself, then move to the loved one, then move to a person about whom I felt neutral. Feel neutral? What does that mean? I don't know that I feel neutral toward anyone. I got over the intial confusion, picked out someone whom I didn't know very well, and used him. The meditation wasn't particularly illuminating or easy that week, but it wasn't terribly burdensome, either.

The fourth week, Salzberg's book instructed me to choose someone I disliked -- an enemy. The selection proved to be more of a challenge than the neutral person. I don't have enemies. I get along with everyone. Duh. Finally, I selected a person whom I perpetually seemed to be cross-wise with online. So I started the meditation with myself, shifted to my loved one, my neutral one, and added my antagonist.

So what did I find? Much to my surprise (and with a degree of chagrin, given my preference for Athenian-birth events, rather than deliberation and incremental ones), I found that I was happier that month than I ever expected to be, even though often enough, the happiness didn't seem directly traceable to the meditation practice. But some things were more readily traceable.

By seeing how I resisted allowing myself to feel lovingkindness toward myself, I was able to relent a little, let a little more light, a little more space in. I didn't have any earth-shaking revelations about loving the loved one, though the meditation did lead me to acknowledge explicitly how much I enjoy her company. I found myself paying a little more attention to the person I was so neutral about. In realizing neutrality, I realized that much of it stemmed from just not knowing him very well. The more I noticed, the more I found to value. The antagonist? First, the practice led me to look more carefully at antagonism and adversity. (I am a litigator, after all.) Attending to it more allowed me to see more antagonism, and more subtle ways that I am antagonistic, and more ways that I project antagonism onto others.

It also made me want to test some of the hypotheses I'd developed about my interactions.

Now, more than a year later? I've decided that love is mostly a muscle -- it can be developed with practice, it atrophies with disuse. Most of my life, I've loved what I've loved and I've been perplexed by its absence when I noticed I didn't love someone.

But mostly, I'm happier. My world has expanded a little bit. I'm less inclined to flip people off during freeway commutes. I notice more when I get mad, when I think someone is being intentionally contradictory, when I am about to dismiss someone as irrelevant or boring.

And I've concluded that there really isn't any clear line between loving myself, loving my little sacrament meeting companion, and loving Bin Laden.

A pearl goes up for auction
No one has enough,
so the pearl buys itself.
-- Rumi

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Nephites, Nuclear War, and Bodhisattvas

Three stories, one idea. The stories are set, respectively, 2000, 25, and 1300 years ago.

* * *

Mormon scripture recounts that 2000 years ago, after his death in Israel, the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to inhabitants of the Americas. During that visit, he taught the gospel, healed the sick, and called disciples to serve the people following his ascension. As a boon to those disciples, he asked what they desired. All but three asked to serve God until they were 70 years, and then to be accepted into heaven. But the three…

…[Jesus] turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father? And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired. And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts… …[Y]e shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven…. …[F]or ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand. …

And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.

3 Nephi, chapter 28, passim, The Book of Mormon

Though they seem to have gone out of vogue in an Internet-linked world, in earlier times of the LDS Church, stories of unexpected and fleeting visits by the Three Nephites, as they were called, providing divine and timely assistance were told, much as angel visitation stories have been told for millennia by Christians. As a youth, I was impressed not so much by the magical aspects of the folktales of the three living (seemingly) forever, but rather by the idea of caring so deeply about the welfare of others that foregoing heaven’s happiness seemed a good trade.

* * *

Fast forward to 1983. I’m a 21-year-old sophomore in college. I’ve returned from serving a mission to teach the gospel to Latin American refugees in the barrios of southern California. America is deeply embroiled in the Cold War. American military planners have developed plans for “battlefield use” of nuclear weapons – the idea was that “low-yield” nuclear weapons could be used in controlled numbers to win battles, without precipitating the kind of mutually assured destruction that had been the baseline assumption about nuclear war during earlier decades. I had grown up with nuclear annihilation as a peculiar commonplace, a kind of low, constant background noise. Though grim, the battlefield-use notion seemed no more delusional than the instructions I grew up with outside Washington, D.C., where government buildings bore “Fallout Shelter” signs, and grade school teachers instructed us, in the event of a nuclear attack, to crawl under the classroom desks for shelter.

In November of 1983, a movie airs on television – The Day After. It shows the story of people living in Kansas when a nuclear war erupts between the US and the Soviet Union. In such detail and horror as could pass FCC muster in the 1980s, the movie tells the story of handfuls of survivors in a post-apocalypse world, assuming, of course, that anyone survived at all. It shows a world of radiation poisoning, people dying for lack of infrastructure that we take for granted – hospitals, food supplies, law and order. It ends on a note of grim suffering and hopelessness. In hindsight, it was a movie designed to show what a “survivable” nuclear war might actually mean, designed to persuade its audience that surviving such an event might be well and truly worse than dying in it. I watch the movie in an apartment that I share with five other roommates. We are all pretty solemn during the movie, though when it ends, they all remark, as the director probably intended, that they’d rather die in the destruction than try to live in its aftermath.

I remain silent for a time, then walk out into the night, devastated. As it happens, the weather is a mix of drizzling rain and snow. At some point, I realize I am barefoot. I climb the sharp hill from my apartment complex to the night-darkened campus of the university. Despite high school teachers who had ridiculed the fallout-training they were supposed to provide (one recommended that if we heard a report that nuclear war had broken out, we should climb up onto the roofs of our homes so we could watch the fireworks before we were vaporized), I’ve never internalized such a thing. The movie drives home to me how awful human existence could be. While I’ve had the usual –perhaps more than the usual – amount of inner-city school kid adversity, I’ve never imagined a situation that I’d rather die than endure. I keep walking aimlessly. As falling snow soaks my shirt through, collects in my hair, I replay the scenes of utter hopelessness. At some point in the night, my heart changes. I realize that stronger than my desire to live the life of comfort and hope that I’ve lived, and stronger than my desire to be with God after death, and stronger than my desire to avoid the horror depicted in the movie, stronger than any of those things is my desire to alleviate others’ suffering. No matter how bad my experience might get, if there are people in need of help, then I’d prefer to stick it out. If a nuclear war leaves me in a world headed toward total death, but doesn’t put us all there all at once, then I choose to live while I can extend compassion to others.

While I keep that realization to myself, even after I walk back through the snow to my apartment, it moves deeply into my mind and heart. And, though I don’t recognize it immediately, that realization is a kind of vow.

* * *

Next, head back to the 8th century, CE. The crown prince of a region that is now in India renounces his position and takes to a spiritual path, living the life of a renunciate. As Pema Chodron recounts the story, he gets to Nalanda University, a large, powerful monastery that attracts students from all over the Buddhist world. At Nalanda he is ordained a monk and takes the name Shantideva, or “God of Peace.”

Contrary to what his later reputation suggests, Shantideva was not well liked at Nalanda. Apparently, he was one of those people who didn’t show up for anything, never studying or coming to practice sessions. His fellow monks said that his three “realizations” were eating, sleeping, and shitting. Finally, in order to teach him a lesson, they invited him to give a talk to the entire university. Only the best students were accorded such an honor. You had to sit on a throne and, of course, have something to say. Since Shantideva was presumed to know nothing, the monks thought he would be shamed and humiliated into leaving the university.

(Pema Chodron, No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, Boston: 2005, p. xi)

As happens in such stories, Shantideva accepted the invitation and delivered a brilliant discourse that has been recorded and preserved ever since, called The Way of the Bodhisattva. In it, he teaches a path for developing bodhicitta – an “awakened heart” – the desire to alleviate suffering, to free oneself from ignorance and habitual patterns in order to help others to do the same.

Buddhist tradition teaches that we can become enlightened, a state that the Buddha described simply as “awake.” In Buddhist terminology, a bodhisattva is a person who has achieved, herself, enlightenment, yet who remains engaged in life on earth to bring others to the same state. Sometimes a person will adopt that role as the natural result of a conscious recognition of connection to others – one who recognizes that until all beings are brought to enlightenment, no one individual’s attainment of that condition is complete. Sometimes a person adopts that role as the natural extension of a powerful compassion.

As the Buddha discovered, as Christ taught, as Mother Theresa embodied, as Ramakrishna showed, as Rumi and Hafiz and Ranier Marie Rilke and Walt Whitman and Mary Oliver all saw and wrote, at the very core of each of us is a connection to all other beings. To be sure, we can spend our entire lives without discovering it or acknowledging it. It is not forced upon us, any more than stillness is forced upon us. But, like stillness, it is always present, behind and beneath the sounds and engagements of daily life. It is as discoverable as stillness, and it is as foundational as stillness. And it is revealed at the opening of a mind to the messages of the heart.

In Shantideva’s terminology, that path is bodhicitta. He urges us to see the problems and challenges before us not as problems of how to find or preserve a good for ourselves and for those with whom we identify, but rather how to heal the entirety of problem, a perspective that cares as deeply for those causing us pain as for those feeling the pain, that values one’s own pain neither less nor more than any other’s. This was Gandhi’s approach to racism in South Africa and to British dominion in India. It wasn’t enough for Gandhi to force the British to leave India – he wanted them to want to leave India because they would want the best for Indians. It was Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s approach to civil rights in the United States, with his “I’ve been to the mountain” vision not of societal gains for African-Americans alone, but rather a world entirely transformed for the benefit of all.

There are many, many ways of labeling bodhicitta. Some simply call it “love.” Others, “the light of Christ.” Some call it “the Dharma.” Some call it the “true self;” others, the “no self.” Some call it “Yoga.” To my way of thinking, the label doesn’t matter much, so long as it provides us with a way to perceive the desire and honor its place, so long as the label doesn’t delude us into thinking that it is only a potential of a few, rather than one of all sentient beings.

Shantideva’s fully envisions the sacrifices entailed by this way of life, prefiguring the sacrifices of Gandhi and Rev. King:

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

My body, thus, and all my goods besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.
(v. 3:10-11)

The desire of a bodhisattva isn’t confined to Shantideva’s discourse 1300 years ago. A friend of mine recently recited Shantideva’s words as she aligned herself to the Way of the bodhisattva. She wrote about the experience here Her commitment led me to read and discover Shantideva.

* * *

And that leads me through these three stories to today.

In the years since I first wondered at (and felt the deep resonance to) the peculiar desire of the Three Nephites so to be of benefit to mankind that they’d forego heaven, in the years since I served as a missionary, in the years since I have stepped quite a distance from beliefs in a particular religion’s view of existence, my recognition on the snowy night in college continues. In my present, I seem to be as belief-deficient when it comes to Buddhist beliefs as I am with respect to Mormon beliefs. Yet my sense and perception of bodhicitta endures as a kind of essential alignment more elemental than belief.

Is a vow a promise or a choice of alignment or simply a recognition?

* * *

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.
-- The Way of the Bodhisattva, v. 10:55

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Samadhi, a taste

I practiced this evening at a yoga studio in the Castro district of San Francisco – Yoga Flow. Why there, rather than some place closer to the Financial district, where I’m staying? A couple of reasons – first, a couple of teachers who’ve done workshops I’ve attended in Denver teach at that studio – Darren Main and Rusty Wells – and I admire aspects of them both; second, it happened to have a class that fit the particular time slot I had available this evening.

So I get there by cab, climb the stairs to the second floor (all big-city yoga studios are second-floor kind of affairs – street level is too expensive), and introduce myself at the front desk, where the teacher, Kari Zabel, and I talk for just a few moments, but enough to discover that we both took teacher training (her first, my only) with same organization, though in different years, and so we have common backgrounds and some common acquaintances.

She runs a very effective practice – both well grounded in manner and approach, strongly colored by Sharon Gannon and David Life’s Jivamukti style. She leads chants well, confidently adjusts students, and ensures her presence reaches the entirety of the very large practice room. The sequence she calls us through is deliberate, unrushed, and intentional. It culminates in Peacock, then slowly proceeds through denoument to Corpse.

Once practice is over, I change back into business clothes, heading to a dinner with colleagues back downtown. I get advice to look for a cab on Castro, rather than Market. The sun is just down; the sky is clearing; the temperature is about 68. I wander around the block to Castro, and I find myself in an early evening crowd of gay men.

It’s at this point that I experience the perfect integration of the yoga practice and life that happens sometimes – that balance of comfort and enervation and stillness and motion and exhaustion and enlivenment and solitude and company, of perfect equanimity and perfect happiness, of beauty.


I spot a cab a block and a half away, wave to it, confident of nothing rational. It flashes its lights, pulls up, whisks me off to my business dinner. During the drive, I find the refrain of Ziggy Marley’s “Love Is My Religion” echoing in my head. I simply am. I find the restaurant, get to the table, join my colleagues, and slowly, slowly, reenter normal existence.

Monday, September 17, 2007

OM Circle

This evening, something I've wanted began to form itself.

I don't know whether it will survive to maturity or not, but there is more to it than there was before this evening.

Though I have yoga teachers and studios and students and co-practitioners in various settings, I have realized in recent months a lack of a community linked by yoga within which to grow and share and support and provide contrast.

Several weeks ago, one of my teacher/friends and I met for tea. We talked about our respective interests in forming a community that could explore more of Yoga than asana practices alone. Her resolve and my willingness to join the effort resulted in the first meeting this evening of an OM circle. Whatever it may become, this evening, it was small and simple: five people sitting on the floor of a small office above a bustling yoga studio. Heather -- the organizer, Jean -- Heather's mother, and three yogis Heather seemed to have collected from various interactions, myself included. Heather instructed us in the simple process -- we would sit in a comfortable meditation position in a circle, one person in the center, close our eyes, and chant OM, each person ending to take new breath as needed, then resuming. Each of us would take turns sitting in the center for a few minutes at a time.

Heather advised that her guru, whose name I forget, encouraged her to implement this. I tried to suspend my skepticism about all things guru-ic, remembering that I, too, have found important relationships with teachers and mentors at different stages of my life, and that I yet would welcome a teacher to guide my efforts. I managed to keep the mental gymnastics quiet -- I could honor her guru as manifested in the creative and energetic and kind person that she is. She then described various effects that could be anticipated from this exercise, ranging from audible experiences of additional or enhanced sounds, to perceptions of energy movements.

Even without that discussion, I was interested and mildly expectant. We began.

It was, in essence, singing a single syllable. I have sung in many situations and in many combinations of voices throughout my life. So this felt rather natural to me. My attention, as it always does when singing, went first to the breath, then to the intonation, the blend, the harmonies. After a few minutes, I modulated my tones, shifting from a bass register to a more natural baritone. At that level, I was chanting in thirds and fourths to the base tone. Once the harmonies developed, they would constantly change, as each other voice entered or dropped out, and as I chanted to the extent of the breath, and then stopped to inhale.

Dimensionally, the OM-ing crescendoed and softened, intonations droned and sharpened, I could feel the sounds being shaped by my vocal cords, by the lifting of my soft palate. I could feel the vibration of the tones in my belly, my chest, my throat, my facial mask. My mind shifted and drifted, always readily coming back to the present-sense experience of the chant. I was aware when the others' breath shifted, as one person moved out of the center, and another moved in. I noticed when others were running out of breath and sustained my OM until they resumed. At points, I felt that the sound was both a tool I could use, and a thing itself. Singer -- song. Dancer -- dance. It seemed a kind of energy. At other points, I felt slight energy effects in my arms and hands. Once, I felt a shakti kind of surge. The experience at the center of the circle, when my turn came, was not different in kind from the experience at the edge of the circle, though the sense of immersion in sound was more complete. Finally, at Heather's verbal instruction, we concluded the OM-ing.

At the end, we chanted a brief mantra in honor of Shiva and the lineage of instruction to which Heather pertains.

It felt devotional, but I was mildly disappointed that it had seemed quite so familiar -- singing with others always, in my experience, entails connection to and with them, always entails harmonies and, when done well, overtones, always entails intonation and timbre and involvement of the mind and body with the sound and the perception.

Then we opened our eyes. And I realized that we'd been chanting OM for about forty minutes -- I'd lost attention to time after the first few minutes. Eyes open, I also realized that my perceptions were different. It's hard to put a label on exactly how different, but I felt mildly high -- not really hyperventilating high, but mildly euphoric. As we shared our respective experiences, the euphoria gradually subsided. I wondered whether it was a result of the vibration of the chant, the concentration of the mind (once ended, I had realized how strongly focused my mind had been on the chant), the pranayama elements to the practice, or something else.

After a few more minutes, we ended the meeting and departed, agreeing to meet again on Monday evenings in the future for more.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a community.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off the Mat -- Tapas

(Another in a series of dharma talks with my yoga students)







There is an interesting practice that I recommend you try sometime: svaha. It starts with a fire, so kindle a decent-sized fire in your fireplace or a campfire or, for that matter, your charcoal grill. For the purposes of this discussion and the mind-image, a good-sized campfire will do. You’ve kindled the flame. You respect its intensity, its potential for good or ill. You can now take two different approaches to the fire. By itself, it will die out over the next hour or two. That’s the nature of fire. Alternatively, you can feed it and keep it going.

Let’s suppose that you choose to maintain it. You now have two interesting choices about how to implement that decision. You can see the fire as demanding your attention and maintenance, or you can see the fire as an opportunity to transform what you no longer need into brightness and warmth – or to transform things that you want less than you want the brightness and warmth that will come from giving them up to the fire.

The ritual is to identify what you can put into the fire, and then to do so. While I’m as literal-minded as the next guy, some things just don’t burn too well, so I tend to think of this ritual as more of a way of re-assembling my interests and priorities in life than as a way to reduce no-longer-wanted/needed possessions to ashes. I have, on more than one occasion, written out a word or two on a slip of paper that I’ve tossed into the fire, giving up my attachment to the idea penned there. Perhaps, it’s been a treasured resentment. Maybe an insistence on my own viewpoint. You get the idea.

I like the brightness of fire.

But I’ve practiced a version of this many more times than I’ve built campfires. For many weeks in a row, one of my more wonderful yoga teachers began each class she taught with the simplified ritual of starting us in seated meditation, asking us to think of something we could give up, imagining it cupped in our hands, then raising the hands to the sky, giving it up to the divine fire. That practice worked for me by putting me into a mindset of seeing the obstacles to my yoga practice (both off-the-mat kinds of practice as well as on) as things I could give up.

Now maybe you aren’t as interested in or moved by rituals as I am. If not, there are other ways to practice tapas. The Book of Malachi in the Bible refers to God as the “refiner’s fire.” (Malachi 3:2) In simple terms, a smith would take gold ore, put it into the most intense fires that could be generated at the time, and would burn away everything that was not the gold. I like that verse and image, as it makes clear to us that our core essence is already gold. What is needed is a fire to remove the obstacles. I think that Malachi may have been getting poetically at the same kind of experience as that which Patanjali articulates in the Yoga Sutra, when he writes

For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near.

How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.

Doesn’t that sound rather like a football coach talking to his players in training camp before the season starts? Football coaches weren’t the first to figure out that intense personal commitment can turn talented players into something altogether different. Tapas is the niyama that speaks easily to our culture. While we may not really feel connected to saucha and we may think that santosha is a bit suspect, we can totally relate to tapas.

In a way, the “how near” question presented in I.22 is asking, essentially, “How badly do you want it?” But it isn’t a tax demanded by a greedy universe that we can pay grudgingly – it’s a transformation of ourselves – indeed, a transformation of our very notions of “self.”

Lama Surya Dass wrote:

Last night across the globe, millions of new parents were awakened by the sound of a crying baby. Around the world, these parents responded by groaning as they stood up and made their way to the baby's crib in order to do what had to be done. All of these parents were renouncing, giving up, or letting go of their much needed sleep because they cared more about the well-being of a little child. The child's needs were more important than their own. Their parental love was stronger than their attachment to their own sleep.

Renunciation, an important and recurring spiritual theme, is not that complicated to understand. Renunciation means sacrificing or giving up something that seems important at that moment in favor of something that we know ultimately has more meaning. Each time we do this, we are making a spiritual choice – a decision to go with the bigger picture. ...

A spiritual journey almost inevitably begins with a decision to renounce a certain way of life. But that decision is less about changing your environment or letting go of people and things than it is about transforming your inner being – learning the inner meaning of letting go and letting be in order to find wise naturalness and authentic simplicity.

(Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Life, Lama Surya Das, Broadway Books: NY, 1999, pp. 31-32)

Along the same lines, Ram Dass wrote in Be Here Now:

You might think of renunciation in terms of some external act like a New Year's resolution, or leaving family and friends to go off to a cave. But renunciation is much more subtle than that – and much harder – and much much more continuing. On the spiritual journey, renunciation means non-attachment.

To become free of attachment means to break the link identifying you with your desires. The desires continue; they are part of the dance of nature. But a renunciate no longer thinks that he is his desires.

(Be Here Now, Ram Dass, Lama Foundation: New Mexico, 1971, p. 9)

So what’s the benefit of tapas – of practicing yoga with deep intensity and commitment? Patanjali promises in language that seems to borrow from Malachi’s refiner’s fire idea that “as intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.” (II.43)

This is something as yogis we can sink their teeth into – something we can test. As you have committed to your practice, performed even just the on-the-mat work with commitment, managing your life to get you to practice, have you discovered that you have been able to perceive things through your senses and body more clearly?

On a very tangible and physical level, I have. As I’ve mentioned in class before, before I discovered yoga, I had gotten desperate enough to meet with back surgeons to see if they could help me fix the constant pain I was in. Though I started my practice of yoga for entirely different reasons, the more I practiced, and the more attention I paid to exactly what I was experiencing in my body, the more I began to perceive the actions, the postures, the motions I was making and holding that complicated and amplified my back problems. Seeing that, I began to change the ways that I sat, the ways that I moved, the ways that I stood. Doing that lessened the pain. The more I practiced, the more I began to distinguish between muscle groups affecting the positions of my lumbar vertebrae and disks. That led me to discovering that as I strengthened – really strengthened a lot – not only my back muscles, but also my psoas, my abdominals, my obliques – I found that I didn’t have any back pain left at all. Now, I don’t want to mislead – yoga didn’t magically heal my back. It did, however, refine my perceptions. It helped me to discover all those things about my back, and having discovered them, to change them. If I revert to the same behaviors I was pursuing when I was talking to back surgeons, I can make my back hurt again, just as it did before. But it’s been years since I wanted to do that.

Off the mat, commitment to the practice of Yoga has similarly refined my perceptions of my body that affect not only physical conditions, but also matters we more often talk of as related to the heart and mind. There is a radical and elemental connection between minds and hearts, spirits and bodies. The same kinds of refinements of perceptions can allow us to see how our actions cause harm to other beings and to ourselves. They can enable us to perceive the effects the foods we eat have on our bodies and on our minds. They can allow us to understand more clearly how other people see a situation, and how they feel about it.

At its core, Yoga can be understood as a set of practices that applies mindfulness to increasingly refined perceptions of the relationships between ourselves and the beings, the world, and the universe around us.

Everyone’s fire burns at different temperatures at different times. So what can you do to build tapas, if you feel like you’re less motivated, less inspired than you might be at other times?

Here’s what I do, in no particular order:

1. Connect with someone who inspires you. This can be anyone, living or dead, someone you’re close to or someone you’ve never met.

2. Get outside – outside your office, outside your house, outside your normal routine, outside your thoughts, outside your habits.

3. Yoga. For me, at any rate, no matter how grumpy, lethargic, sick, lazy, depressed, or bored I may feel, if I can get myself into a yoga practice, I start to feel better, more interested in practicing. When we practice yoga – especially the vinyasa style that we typically do in class – it gets easy to think of tapas as simply the body heat we generate, but the heating affects much more than just the temperature of our muscles and tendons – tapas affects our minds, as well.

One caution as a parting thought: tapas or intensity does not mean “force,” either on or off the mat. Forcing ourselves into a posture wrecks knees. Forcing ourselves into a thought process performs similar damage to our minds. Yoga tempers tapas with santosha (contentment) and ahimsa (non-harming). Find ways to make tapas compatible with those principles – not an opposition to them.